My guide to travel in South India.
You should read this to find out all the best things to do while on your dream trip to India. Your time is precious, so you dont want to miss out. On what’s good and you can draw inspiration for what suits you from this post. In this post, my guide to travel in South India, I will be going through each state and be highlighting what is best in my experience. This a no-nonsense honest evaluation of what I have found.
The south of the country is such a wonderful place with so much to offer it is hard to know where to start. If it is your first, second or third trip here you will still find so much to discover. I would also like to hear of your experiences and what you found to be good. Leave your questions or comments in the box provided. So without further ado, let us jump straight in.
The South Indian States.
The south of the country is made up of four states, and each one is distinctly different from the next. We will now take a look at what you can expect to find in each. Dont be fooled into thinking you can take in the highlights of these states in a couple of weeks or even a month. I am mentioning this as I have seen several posts that suggest you can?
That’s a crazy concept, and that is someone who is just telling you what you want to hear. The reality is it is a massive expanse of land and of cause you can’t see it in a couple of weeks and hope for any kind of quality from your time. Give your trip and yourself the respect it deserves and dont rush too much. No one wants to spend all of their hard-earned holidays in the back of a bus, right? With just two weeks, I would not hope to see more than one state. Less is definitely more in the backpacking game.
This is one of my favourite states on the whole subcontinent. It lays at the very bottom of the country and is utterly unlike anywhere else. You will find countless historical wonders left from empires such as the Cholas, Pallavas and Pandyas, to name a few. The artists who created these ancient masterpieces did so in a riot of creation, and you will be hard-pressed not to be blown away from the grandeur of their work.
In the UK we have phrase used by the older generation asking whats all this Palava? It is used to describe a situation that is loud and disorderly. Well, now you can come and find out!
The landscape around the coast is a lot arider than that in neighbouring Kerala. There is an end of the world feel as you head further towards the bottom of the country and for the ancients who once called this place home, I guess it really was.
The people are particularly hospitable in Tamil Nadu and welcome tourists with open arms. It is a land of contrasts as there are deep-rooted traditions that flourish here alongside a progressive and ordered society. I first visited this state in 1994, and I was amazed. I visited again a couple of years ago, and it amazed me still even though I have travelled around so much of the country. I would recommend a trip to this state wholeheartedly for any backpacker who has the time.
Food lovers will not go hungry as some of the best food to be had in the country can be found down here. I found Tamils take their dinner very seriously and it will be hard to try it all even if you have months in this state. Watch out for the Chettinad region as they have their own train of thought on food and they have developed their very own repertoire of dishes for you to to try and get through.
You will find a broad array of ingredients used in Tamal dishes that are quite unlike you will find elsewhere. Make sure you are wearing stretchy trousers when you come to this state because your tastebuds are in for a real treat.
Most people have at least heard of this state even if they have not been. In the west, it is one of the states that have become quintessentially Indian. You may have learned of a land of tropical bliss where palm trees sway lazily in the gentle sea breeze as far as the eye can see. A land where animals rule the thick jungles of its interior.
Or maybe you have heard of tiny canals where the local people thrive of what the bountiful land provides. I can assure you the hype is real and this state in one of the countries premier and for an excellent reason. A truckload of visitors make their way here every year and here’s why. Put simply this really is gods own land. That is the states tourism moto by the way, and I would agree that if there is such a thing as god, it will live here.
There are also several extraordinary cultural customs for an intrepid traveller to engage in. There are the world-famous interpretive dances that are quite unlike anything you have ever seen. Even more unusual is the local custom of Theyyam. There are 456 different types of this, and the one I witnessed left me speechless.
This ancient tradition involved someone getting in tune with God to work out the future for the local community. He was adorned heavily in elaborate costume. That’s the end product you see in the picture at the top of this page. He then proceeded to work himself into a trance as the villagers built an enormous fire. I really hoped he was in a trance as he was then attached to ropes and then thrown headfirst in the fire and dragged out. Then the poor guy was thrown in again and again. From this, he was able to see the fortunes and pitfalls of the whole village.
For more information on this check out the Wikipedia link provided. If your travelling in northern Kerala in season and yes there is one of those. It is between October and May. Then ask in your guesthouse if there is any is going on and dont miss the chance as it is a once in a lifetime kind of deal.
Amazing beaches, wildlife, landscapes and customs aside travel here is a foodies paradise. The world-famous Keralan cuisine is certainly something to write home about. It could be the tangy tamarind laced curries that grab you or perhaps the subtly spiced coconut dishes. I find I only ever need to eat twice a day in India as the portions are massive. Nowhere reflects this better than breakfast in Kerala. Such dishes as dosa, uttapam, idli, and the sumptuous flaky parathas are sure to keep your hunger locked up till lunch.
Eating your way through this states an enormous collection of signature dishes is a definite highlight of visiting. The long and bountiful coastline provides pescatarians with a chance to indulge like never before and without breaking the bank for more information on what to look for to find the best meals check out my in-depth post on Indian cuisine.
Now, this is a state that is subtle in its wonders and remains far off most peoples radar. The information in the guide books on this state is limited, to say the least. You will never hear anyone say hey I’m taking my holiday in Andhra Pradesh you know it? No! Even if you did that person would probably have never have heard of this state, and that’s a real shame. Because that does not mean there is nothing here by any stretch of the imagination.
The state capital of Hyderabad alone is a treasure trove of historical wonders. The Markets in the old town are incredible, and you can spend hours wandering around, taking in the sights and smells. As I mentioned before the ancient ruins of Golconda, makes for a day to remember.
Outside of the capital, there are countless places of interest, and some stand out more than others. One place I can’t resist mentioning is Gandikota. Also known as the grand canyon of India. While that might be a slightly over the top comparison, it is however incredible. One of the beauties of travelling in this state as unlike everywhere else in south India it is mostly empty of tourists. You will have pretty much everywhere to yourself. The national parks here get few visitors, and that means many of them will not incur the same insane costs.
The Araku valley in the far northeast of this massive state looks incredible. Though I have never been, I have seen lots of pictures, and it has firmly made its place on my bucket list. I love the off the beaten track kind of adventures.
When it comes to food, the signature dishes of this state go largely unnoticed and are not widely available across the subcontinent. Although I have to add the Biryanis from Hyderabad are regarded by many as the best in the country. I have to say, I agree. Like everything else in the state, the food does not grab the headlines, but there is still plenty of unique dishes to get your teeth into here.
Last but not least is this epic state. There are oodles to keep you occupied at every turn. It isn’t easy to know where to start when talking about the highlights here, but I will start with the Landscapes. The Western Ghats stretch far into this state and is no less lush and fertile out here. The boulder-strewn landscapes around Hampi have been eroded through centuries of gruelling heat and wind. That is what leaves you with the whimsical sights that greet you today.
There are miles of beautiful coastline that are largely undeveloped and unknown to outsiders. For those with hedonistic inclinations checkout Gorkana and join the rest of the sun worshipers. There are magnificent stretches of coastline to sink your feet into, and there is no reason why you should miss out. When in Rome, as they say.
Many national parks harbour some of Indias best stocks of wildlife. Particularly those on either side of the Kabini river. Any wildlife lover will not leave here disappointed as there are 20 wildlife sanctuaries to choose from in the state. Karnataka is one of the richest parts of the country for biodiversity as about twenty per cent of the whole state is forested.
You will have the chance to spot a few of the states impressive 563 bird species and if ornithology does not do it for you then maybe finding some of the states 120 mammal species will. So if you are a wildlife lover, grab your camera or binoculars and make a beeline for this incredible state.
History buffs will be in for a treat as there is a multitude of places to explore, from the mogul ruins in the far north of the state to the grand Hindu ruins of Hampi. The British Raj has left their footprint clearly on the ground and is reflected in the grand monuments of Mysore.
The food is no less remarkable if not a little undersung. Understandably with many miles off coastline and long rivers it is of no surprise that fish and shellfish feature heavily on menus here. Try the prawn ghassi for something exceptional. This is the signature dish of Mangalore so if you are passing through then dont pass up the chance to try the real thing. They have their own takes on dishes such as masala dosa and puri. Try it all if you can as you won’t find any of these gastronomic treats outside the state. Well, not that I have seen anyway.
Transport in South India.
Unlike much of the country, things are very organised and efficient. The good news is that when you are travelling in South India, you can get from one destination to the next with relative ease.
I have to point out though that it may not look far on a map. However, this is a vast stretch of land so be mindful when you are planning your journey from home as you dont want to have to spend all your time on public transport only to be pressed for time when you arrive at the places you actually want to see. That is not making the best of your time and after all the time, effort and money it took to get there you want to make the most of it surely.
The great Indian railways link all major towns, and you can easily book a seat. Many large cities have tourist offices, and I would recommend you utilise them when you can. They will give you access to tourist quotas and seem to be able to pull seats out of thin air. Trains are fast and efficient ways of getting around, and if you can, I would recommend using this option as opposed to the bus. If I am honest, riding the Indian rails is an experience unto itself.
Both public and private busses connect just about everywhere, and they are also a perfectly good option. I normally go on the government buses as they are a good deal cheaper than private companies. They also tend to be a whole lot more frequent, and you dont need a middle man to purchase the tickets.
In town, there will be intercity buses and plenty rickshaws to utilise. However, many people use Uber or Ola as there is no battering for a fair price and is probably safer, particularly for a lone woman at night. For more information on getting around India, I have an in-depth post on that matter, so feel free to check it out when you have the time.
In summary of my guide to travel in South India.
Wow, this post was much longer than anticipated and well done for getting to the end. As you can see, there is a little something here for everyone. More than just a little sun sea and sand. I feel I covered a lot but if you do have any more questions then do not hesitate to ask. I have extensive experience backpacking in the area, and I would love to help you get the most out of YOUR time.
I know we are in and out of lockdown right now, but this will not last forever. Use this time to draw up a coherent plan of what it is you want to get out of your time. The better plan you have, the greater the chances of you getting what you really want from your trip, and hopefully it not breaking the bank.
This part of the world is a much more mild culture shock that the north of the country but still plenty enough for you to enjoy. It is also radically different from elsewhere on the subcontinent. So that about wraps up this post and I hope you enjoyed my guide to travel in South India and if you have any suggestions on what I can change or do better, then please leave them in the comment section below. So Until the next time my fellow intrepid travellers, happy travels.
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